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Gluten, Sugar, Love: Tales From the Path to Joy - The Most Precious Gift

J’s first gift to me was a Himalayan Salt lamp accompanied by a rainbow-colored mylar balloon.   The balloon was attached to a dozen cupcakes encased in plastic sealed with a paper label on which was printed a 2-inch paragraph of ingredients in lettering too tiny to read.  I had never seen a Himalayan Salt lamp before a man in my yoga class in the city gave me one two weeks before.  Now this other man from my other yoga class gave me another one.  I didn’t know what to make of it.  J started to explain.  All I could think of was that he was late and my students were waiting.  “Happy Birthday”, he said.  His boyish excitement compelled forth the teacher in me.  “Thank you, so much, J!  We can share this with the other students after class.”  He hurried to set up his mat and join the waiting students.  

Through a hesitant smile I held out the opened package for my students.  Two of them declined.  The rest stood around the alcove at the entrance of my studio and chose from the chocolate or the vanilla-frosted cakes topped with rainbow colored sprinkles.  “This is such crap,” I thought of the hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup, “and I’ll have to eat one to be nice.”

Knowing J as I do now, I cannot help but smile to think of it.  He got such pleasure from giving gifts. But he got what he wanted, so, it’s ok to smile about it now.  A gift from a man can be so loaded.  


The boxes were meticulously wrapped in colorfully striped paper.  The thin ribbon matched perfectly and was curled into a bow at the knot. “Happy Birthday” said the Amerasian boy at the start of our lunch shift at the Fortune Cookie.  “Thank you”, I answered, tentatively.  He nodded his head and rushed away to wipe down the salt and pepper shakers.  

From the boxes I pulled a pair of plastic hair-combs adorned with red silk lilies and a purple and gold-striped glass perfume bottle.  I pulled the twisted stopper from the bulbous glass bottom and waited for the Genie to be released.  I didn’t know what to make of it.  

I stared at the boy between orders of “number three lunch specials”.  He smiled perfunctorily when he caught the intensity of my stare and went back to the business of waiting his station.  He finished before the rest of us and left.

“Why would he give me a birthday present?” I asked a blue-eyed waitress at the silverware station.  “That’s just how he is”, she answered.  “But it was such a nice gift!” I insisted.  She shrugged.  “What does he want?” I thought.

I don’t remember him after that day during the Spring that I lived in sunny Florida. I wonder if I even knew his name. But I still have that perfume bottle twenty-seven years later.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever received, it had no strings attached, and I love it.
genie bottle

There are two motives for giving, four functions of giving, and eight laws of giving.  

We give to establish or maintain relationships, like J did with his himalayan salt lamp, and I did by eating a supermarket cupcake.  As in the 1st law of giving, I ate it reluctantly and with regret until the day I no longer regretted it.  

We give for self-serving reasons, like the hope that we will be appreciated, perhaps loved, for the effort and sacrifice we make for another.  Or maybe we give just so we can hold it over somebody later when we want to have our way.  We give gifts to mark events like birthdays and holidays.  We give because we were socialized as children to give gifts and thanks.  We give sometimes to create a medium of economic exchange.  “I’ll give you a free week of classes if you sort out my filing.” I offered a student.  We give other times because it makes us happy to see another happy.  

The gifts we give can be tangible.  I placed the Himalayan salt lamp on the sill of the window where I led my classes and left it on while my students meditated.  At the end of every class, J got to see his gift behind the silhouette of my frame as he tried to meditate.  I used it until the base broke last December.

Every winter, I wear the Pink Doc Maartens J gave me on my forty-ninth birthday.  I live in New England, so I wear them often.  Both women and men stop me to comment on my pink boots.  I wore them to march to the store to get yarn for my pussyhat.  

Until the day J’s new girlfriend posted pictures of them kissing, I wore the small silver hoops I bought to hold the silver Pole Dance Eagle earrings J gave me for Christmas on the year I gave him his thick, blue Brooks Brothers velvety-soft bathrobe.  It gave me so much pleasure to see him stroke his broad chest as it warmed him in the house that his housemate kept so cold.

Sometimes we give to share.  During a trip to Rockport that first summer, J followed me into a silver jewelry store.  I wanted to find pole dance charms to collect as I achieved the difficult moves.  He paid attention.  We were drawn to a circular charm that neither of us recognized.  I saw yin-yang with something extra.  He saw blades on fire.  I bought it for him.  As it turns out, it is a Tibetan wheel of joy.  I have never seen J wear it. Instead, the Jewish man-boy wears a cross around his neck.  He prefers to use symbols for decoration.

On his next birthday, I gave J a Billy Joel CD with a card professing my love.  He was so pleased.  “Thank you!  I love Billy Joel!”  He didn’t realize the gift was for the Billy Joel Concert at Fenway Park four months later.  That got him excited.  Before the concert we fought.  The question of who would buy my ticket came up.  He was more than willing to forfeit his gift so I could take someone else.  I couldn’t really afford the tickets and had to sell some furniture in order to buy them for him.  I never would have bought them for myself.   I think I got back together with him just so he would receive his gift.  

Sometimes we use gifts to break the ice. After moving in together, J’s frequent silent treatments became a welcome reprieve.  Sitting alone on the floor of “my room” one morning, I heard a tap at the door.  “Yeah?”  “Can I come in?”  “Sure,” I shrugged.  He popped his head and shoulders in and extended an arm towards me.  In his hand were a pair of non-skid Toe Sox.  “What’s this?” I asked.  “A peace offering.” he answered.  “Thank you.” I said, bewildered.  Those socks got lost in the wash.

IMG_20150313_102450      Gifts can be precious.  For my 50th birthday, J sprung and got me an original edition of Esquire Magazine from April 1968.  Today I could buy one for the price of his Billy Joel Ticket, but this gift means the world to me.  It features a man who left me speechless when I bumped into him at Jack’s Joke shop decades after this publication and decades before I ever met J. By then the hits this man endured had silenced him.  But all the fight and charm were there in his eyes and he shined those eyes at me in Jack’s Joke Shop that day. The article about him was published the Spring before his big comeback, after he had stood up to the Powers-that-be who retaliated by stripping him of his title and livelihood.  Whenever I fear that I can endure no more, I look up at Muhammad Ali with the arrows hanging off his body.  I am reminded of his passion and I put my nose to the grindstone.  

Some of the most precious gifts have no price.  But some people would give all their worldly possessions for just one kind word, a gentle touch, a pat on the back, a smile of encouragement, or three little words from the person they love.

After discovering a wet spot on the white shag rug in the living room of the apartment we shared, J laid into me.  I wasn’t allowed to watch his big TV in the living room, so he bought a smaller TV and placed it over the bar where we ate our meals for me.  I’d made a tomato sandwich and was holding it in my hand when I noticed the remote on the coffee table.  Trying to keep the tomato sandwich over the tiled floor in the bar area I held it in my left hand as I reached over the rug with my right.  The pressure on the bread squeezed a tomato onto the white shag rug.  I tried to clean it before J came home, but it wouldn’t dry.  He was waiting for me when I got home from work.  Sobbing, I went online to buy him a new rug.  When he saw that I was about to spend $700 more than he had paid for it, he eased up.  “’s ok” he said directing my hands away from the keyboard.  He even sat outside with me as I had a glass of wine to calm down.  I never had to hear about the white shag rug again.  That was a gift!

J’s towels were all faded and thin.  He complained about that one day.  For his birthday, I bought him the thickest, softest grey towels I could find.  I wanted him to wrap his naked body in comfort.  I wanted to see that smile he had when he wrapped himself in the blue robe.  I wrapped the towels in blue, grey and black gift paper.  I picked out a card with a black leather jacket with zippers.  J likes black leather and zippers.  I had the gift wrapped and ready to give him on his birthday.  Anyone who knows me knows that this required special effort.  I never have gifts wrapped and ready to give on the day of.  J hung the towels on a towel rack next to the entrance of the bathroom.  He never used them.  “They’re guest towels” he said.  

Above the towel rack was an empty space on the wall.  It begged for a painting or a print.  I asked J to let me make us something.  J and I are both Piscean.  The symbol of our sign is two fish going in opposite directions.  It represents the choice Pisces has in life - to take the challenge, or take the easy way.  The Pisces who takes the challenge will enjoy a blessed life.  The Pisces who takes the easy way is doomed to the hook of a wasted life.  

At certain angles, J and I both have Asian features.  My blood type is more common in the Far East, suggesting genetic provenance.  “With your hair in the ponytail, you look like the skinny Buddha” my student told me after meditation.  I am drawn to Eastern traditions, and tried to teach J to think in terms of light and dark instead of Western “good” and “bad”.  I decided to make us a drawing of two yin-yang symbols in the shape of four Japanese fish. It would represent the choice we had every day to see things in terms of rhythms of light rather than binaries of judgment.  Upright, the drawing looks like the number eight, as in the 8-fold path of Buddhism.  When you turn the number eight sideways, it makes a mobius strip.  I called the drawing, “Two Fish, Four Directions, Infinite Possibilities”.  I finished it in the Spring, but J had purchased a grey print from Home Goods and I had been forced out before I could have it framed.  

The last gift I gave J was on his birthday six months after he changed the locks on the apartment we shared for five months.  It was a drawing of the Phoenix rising from the ashes.  It symbolized the hope I had for him to rise up from the mess of the past.  I took him to dinner at Seasons 52, the restaurant I discovered by myself on the night that set off a series of events that ended with a visit from the police and refuge in the home of my friends.  J and I were trying to create new memories in troublesome places.  J held up a glass of wine on which was etched the number fifty-two.  “I’m going to bring you here to kick-off your fifty-second year of life” he said.  He never kept that promise.